Report on the Threatened City

by

Doris Lessing

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Light Symbol Icon

Light and darkness symbolize humanity’s awareness and understanding, or a lack thereof, literalizing the idea of enlightenment in “Report on the Threatened City.” In the story, the alien envoys and their spacecraft are made of light and are thus difficult for the humans—with their limited understanding and still-developing technology—to perceive. The ship can be seen in dim moonlight, and the envoys’ first encounter with humans happens at night, suggesting the dimness of human awareness. And indeed, the youths and elders with whom the envoys communicate are aware of the imminent danger of an earthquake (which the envoys have come to Earth to warn people about) but cannot imagine taking preventive steps against it. The aliens themselves seem to be made of light rather than matter, which suggests that they are generally more enlightened—that is, technologically advanced, knowledgeable, and empathetic—than humans. The younger humans are more “clear-minded” than the elders, though, and thus better able to discern the dangers posed by war or the intersection of human action and nature. When the envoys encounter some intoxicated youths, the drug they have taken increases their sensitivity and enables them to better sense the envoys, whom they associate with light shining above the roof of a gas station.

When the envoys infiltrate a youthful gathering on the beach at sunset, they learn that darkness has a “powerfully saddening effect” on the humans, and the envoys’ messages inspire “disabling despair,” sad songs, and a hopeless refrain of “what can we do?” that lasts until many of the youth commit suicide. In this way, darkness represents people’s despair at not being able to understand the world around them. It is also at sunset—a time that, to the alien envoys, symbolizes humanity’s apathy and passivity—that the envoys abandon their failed mission of warning the city’s residents about the earthquake. The shifting and unstable light of sunset both indicates the challenges of enlightening the humans and provides the opportunity for the “official explanation” that shifting light and vivid sunsets cause mirages—illusions. Yet the envoys are real, and so is the danger of the earthquake. Nevertheless, humans perceive the envoys as a trick of the light and the earthquake as a vague, unurgent danger, thus perpetuating their own shortsightedness.

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Light Symbol Timeline in Report on the Threatened City

The timeline below shows where the symbol Light appears in Report on the Threatened City. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Report on the Threatened City
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
The Landing. The envoys landed their craft by moonlight in an arid, sparsely populated area. Their predecessors had landed here, first at long intervals,... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
...envoys attempted their first warning. The elders seemed unafraid and didn’t understand that the bright sunlight had just made the spacecraft invisible. The envoys decided to intercept the elders’ thoughts and... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
...youth come close enough for the envoys to make their second attempt. Just as the light of day faded, four youths arrived, and the envoys used the same method—but less time—to... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
...the city with the four youths. The trip began at dawn and continued until full light. The envoys were shocked by the foolhardy  way the youth handled the vehicle, their laughter... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
...presence, unlike the youth in the car. The intoxicated youth associated the envoys with the light of the “sun’s appearance over the roof.” Because the drug had relaxed the youths, the... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...of the reporters. If, however, other authorities “observed […] with instruments […] three rapidly vibrating light structures”—the same aliens—they would be more readily believed. In addition to the messenger, great care... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
Failure with the Young. Unfortunately, the envoys waited until after the daylight had faded, the worst possible moment, for this attempt. Several youths turned the occasion into... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...not the only citizen to report strange sightings, but the “official explanation” finds that the light of “unusually vivid sunsets” has recently caused “strong reflections and mirages” in the area. (full context)